The ethics of breeding to kill

Ve­ganism, veg­e­tar­i­anism, and “eth­i­cal” farm­ing seem to be gain­ing a lot of ground lately, which is some­thing I find fas­ci­nat­ingly ab­surd.

In part, I think this comes from a felic­i­tous style of rea­son­ing that I out­lined here.

But, in hind­sight, I think a lot of peo­ple that con­sume meat don’t have any foun­da­tion that backs up their choice of kil­ling an­i­mals for food. So I think it’s worth out­lin­ing one here.

First, let’s get the two “main” ar­gu­ments against kil­ling an­i­mals for food and fac­tory farm­ing on the table:

  1. The util­i­tar­ian ar­gu­ment—Farm­ing an­i­mals for meat of­ten causes more “suffer­ing” than “joy” to the an­i­mals.

  2. The nor­ma­tive ar­gu­ment—Breed­ing some­thing in or­der to kill it is “wronger” than not hav­ing it live at all.

Se­cond, I want to look at the kind of an­i­mals me (and pre­sum­ably many peo­ple) would feel bad about kil­ling or eat­ing. I’m go­ing to ig­nore cats and dogs here be­cause there’s too much bag­gage to take in due to the role they play in our so­ciety. But dis­re­gard­ing those, I think there are three cat­e­gories:

  • Hu­mans

  • Apes (po­ten­tially ex­tend­ing to all mon­keys)

  • Ce­taceans (whales & dolphins)

That’s not to say we would eat all other types of an­i­mals, but if an Inuit tribesman would hand you a tra­di­tional dish made with seal or bever you might be­grudg­ingly (or, in my case, hap­pily) give it a go. How­ever, you would prob­a­bly re­fuse if that same tribesman handed you hu­man or blue whale meat.


He­donic Regression

Utili­tar­i­anism is a good ethics frame­work if you re­fuse to un­der­stand how a brain works. In the real world, suffer­ing and joy aren’t so clean cut. An­i­mals adapt their “level of suffer­ing” to their en­vi­ron­ment. If an an­i­mal is in a hos­tile land for a few months, and when you de­prive it of wa­ter, that an­i­mal might feel equally bad as one that has lived in pa­rades for the last few months but has just been de­prived of a mat­ing op­por­tu­nity.

The world’s hap­piness in­dex can be a good show­case we hu­mans ex­pe­rience this to some ex­tent. Note, for ex­am­ple, how Saudi Ara­bia (a harsh and un­equal Is­lamic theo­cratic monar­chy that still prac­tices be­head­ing and cru­ci­fix­ion sprawl­ing over an un­for­giv­ing desert) is over­all “hap­pier” than Spain… which, is Spain, it’s so nice it’s among the top 5 global des­ti­na­tions for for­eign holi­days.

To give a more ex­treme ex­am­ple, So­ma­lia is at 112 out of 156, above coun­tries like Ukraine. So­ma­lia seems to be a hor­rify­ing place to be even by Sub­sa­haran Afri­can stan­dard. So­ma­lia’s GDP per cap­ita as of 2019 is 348$ (al­most 200 times lower than that of the US and with higher in­come in­equal­ity), the rate of fe­male gen­i­tal mu­tila­tion is 98% (see wiki ar­ti­cle if you want more graphic de­tails, what­ever you’re think­ing of, I as­sure you it’s worst than that). I won’t go into more de­tails here, but feel free to dig through it’s Wikipe­dia page if you want to see ex­actly how hor­rible a place can get.

Granted, some of the coun­tries ranked lower such as Ukraine, In­dia, Iran, and Ge­or­gia aren’t ideal. But the prob­lems there seem more akin to those in Eastern Europe around the turn of the 21st cen­tury, rather than… what­ever the hell is hap­pen­ing in So­ma­lia.

This is just a nit-picky show­case, but feel free to dig into the is­sue fur­ther if it’s the first time you heard about it, I feel like it’s hardly a con­tro­ver­sial phe­nomenon.

The ques­tion that re­mains is some­thing like: How far does he­do­nic re­gres­sion go? To which the an­swer varies. You can prob­a­bly get a per­sonal an­swer by look­ing at met­rics of hap­piness dur­ing your life (e.g. amount of good sleep, money, sex, ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships, nice ob­jects, good friends, drugs, qual­ity time with your par­ents and, the free time you had) vs how happy you felt at any given time.

I as­sume a Bud­dhist monk might claim 90% of the thing is con­structed and your cir­cum­stances don’t mat­ter at all, while a hard­core Marx­ist might say re­verse those per­centages. Still, re­gard­less of what the num­ber is, we seem to agree that “ob­jec­tive” hap­piness is enough of a thing to mo­ti­vate us to­wards (try­ing at) im­prov­ing the hu­man con­di­tion through ma­te­rial means.

Th­ese ma­te­rial means in­cludes things like not farm­ing our fel­low hu­mans in tight cages or con­fined pas­tures in or­der to slaugh­ter and eat them.

Suicide as an in­di­ca­tor of ob­jec­tive happiness

While it’s hard to quan­tify ob­jec­tive hap­piness, I think it’s fair to use suicide as a bench­mark for when some­one’s life be­comes mis­er­able enough for them to end it.

Granted, a lot of suicides are “spur of the mo­ment” psy­chotic acts, but some are cold and calcu­lated and spurred on by chronic suffer­ing. Over­all, they ac­count for 1.5% of hu­man deaths, which is quite sig­nifi­cant.

Even more so, a larger num­ber of peo­ple prob­a­bly live in “suicide-in­duc­ing” con­di­tions, but carry on due to hop­ing for hap­piness in the fu­ture.

This is all to say, he­do­nic re­gres­sion or not, there’s cer­tainly a break­ing point for hu­mans when the suffer­ing out­weighs the plea­sure enough for life to not be worth liv­ing.

There’s some de­bate as to whether or not an­i­mals com­mit suicide due to “suffer­ing”. The only “ob­vi­ous” cases are in dolphins, with the most well stud­ied be­ing Flip­per and the lesser-known Peter.

We can ar­gue over the ex­act defi­ni­tion of “know­ing” what life and death are and thus “con­sciously” de­cid­ing to com­mit suicide. But in the case of a dolphin-like Peter, it seems that the chain of events is some­thing like:

  • Get taken away from your kin and placed in a house with a girl and some researchers

  • Befriend the girl and make seem­ingly sex­ual ad­vanced on her

  • Have her be­grudg­ingly re­cip­ro­cate with some pitty hand jobs

  • Drop acid with her and some scientists

  • Get taken out of the house and away from the girl you liked

  • Com­mit suicide by swim­ming to the bot­tom of a tank and stay­ing there un­til you run out of air and suffo­cate.

Is there some an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing go­ing on here? Maybe. But I think it’s hard to make this seem like any­thing but a hu­man-like suicide due to life be­ing too mis­er­able for it to be worth liv­ing. This is not a cell com­mit­ting apop­to­sis, this is not a mother jump­ing in front of a preda­tor to give her kids time to es­cape, this is not an old alpha male dy­ing in a bat­tle to pro­tect his fad­ing sta­tus, it’s not a scared bi­son be­ing chased off a cliff.

The case for suicide in other cetaceans is va­guer, but it still seems plau­si­ble that they would ex­hibit such be­hav­ior based on their other ac­tions.

To my knowl­edge, it hasn’t been ob­served in mon­keys (other than vervet mon­keys, ar­guably), but then again, study­ing mon­keys in the wild is hard and we usu­ally treat them fairly well in cap­tivity. Still, I think it’s a safe bet based on how similar apes are to us that they might be ca­pa­ble of suicide, they are cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of many other forms of self-harm.

Can he­do­nic re­gres­sion go on for­ever?

Con­versely, it seems that there are no doc­u­mented cases of suicide amongst com­monly farmed an­i­mals. The clos­est I can get to is an in­ci­dent in the alps with cows throw­ing them­selves off a cliff. But know­ing how cows are treated in the Swiss alps (hint: fairly nicely, ar­guably bet­ter than we treat most hu­mans, cer­tainly not in any way re­sem­bling fac­tory farms) plus many other cases of scared bov­ines ac­ci­den­tally run­ning off cliffs, I think it’s fair to as­sume this is not a “suicide” but rather an ac­ci­dent.

Granted, the ab­sence of ev­i­dence is not proof, but I’d think we’d have ob­served this if there were a sig­nifi­cant num­ber of cases. Self-harm amongst farmed an­i­mals does seem to hap­pen, but it never seems to di­rectly lead to death, at most it leads to in­fec­tions that kill them later (e.g. due to the ex­ces­sive groom­ing be­hav­ior that most an­i­mals ex­hibit in cap­tivity).

The ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion from this ought to be that an­i­mals in cap­tivity are on the whole “happy”, even those in fac­tory farms. Or at least, not suffer­ing so much as to think their con­di­tion to be worst than death.

You may re­tort that the kind of an­i­mals we farm aren’t able of the rea­son­ing needed to con­clude “My pre­sent con­di­tion is worst than not be­ing at all”. But then, why as­sume the con­cepts of joy and suffer­ing as we un­der­stand them to ap­ply to them at all? If they aren’t agen­tic enough to rea­son about their con­di­tion in that ob­jec­tive sense, then the ob­vi­ous model seems one where they lack our par­tially ob­jec­tive con­cepts of “good” and “bad” en­tirely.

To sum­ma­rize:

The as­sump­tion that fac­tory-farmed an­i­mals lead a life of “suffer­ing”, that is to say, they get “nega­tive” joy out of life and they’d be bet­ter off be­ing dead, seem shacky.

Suffer­ing and hap­piness are hu­man con­cepts, and we can in part at­test there are forms of suffer­ing worst than death by look­ing at our choice to com­mit suicide (i.e. chose death over suffer­ing).

This be­hav­ior seems to be ex­hibited by some an­i­mals of pre­sum­ably similar in­tel­li­gence (cetaceans and mon­keys), but not by the an­i­mals we farm.

Thus, based on our best in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the hard sub­ject of con­scious­ness and feel­ing in differ­ent species, it seems rea­son­able to as­sume that:

a) The an­i­mals we farm “pre­fer” liv­ing in their cur­rent state to dy­ing.

b) The an­i­mals we farm lack any con­cepts of suffer­ing and joy similar to ours.

The util­i­tar­ian ar­gu­ment for not farm­ing an­i­mals would fall over in both of these situ­a­tions. Even worst, if the prob­lem falls into the case a), then as a util­i­tar­ian, you’d have a duty to eat as many an­i­mals as pos­si­ble, thus en­sur­ing the birth and hap­piness-pos­i­tive lives of as many farm an­i­mals as you can. Be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian would not only fail to pre­vent any suffer­ing but might ac­tu­ally diminish the amount of hap­piness in the world.

The nor­ma­tive ar­gu­ment for not farm­ing an­i­mals might still stand if it in­volves re­li­gious rea­sons (e.g. the in­sis­tence upon not kil­ling in cer­tain branches of Bud­dhism and Hin­duism). But the ver­sion that is based on the nor­ma­tive value as­signed to “hap­piness” and “suffer­ing” would be in­valid in this paradigm.

This is not to say that we can cer­tainly con­clude that an­i­mals be­ing farmed don’t ac­tu­ally dis­like life more than they en­joy it. This could cer­tainly be the case, and they might just lack the rea­son­ing to com­mit suicide. But this is an ar­bi­trary an­thro­po­mor­phic trait we de­cide to as­sign upon them and it could equally well be as­signed to mosquitos, or waps, or mycelia.

Thus I fail to see a strong eth­i­cal ar­gu­ment against the eat­ing of an­i­mals from this per­spec­tive. Although there’s a com­pletely un­re­lated en­vi­ron­men­tal per­spec­tive against farm­ing an­i­mals which this doesn’t ad­dress.

It seems that we should at most “shelf” this prob­lem for later when there is enough time to ac­tu­ally ad­dress the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of whether or not these an­i­mals would or could pre­fer in­ex­is­tence to their cur­rent state.

Un­til then, the san­est choice would seem to be that of fo­cus­ing our suffer­ing-diminish­ing po­ten­tial onto the be­ings that can most cer­tainly suffer so much as to make their con­di­tion seem worst than death.